Ballad a gathering of f.., p.8

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 8

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 8


  She lay her fingers on top of my fingers. “I can’t play any instrument. ”

  It was weirdly intimate, her sitting in the framework of my arms, her body perfectly mimicking the shape of mine, long fingers fitting exactly on top of mine. I would’ve given one of my lungs to sit with Dee like this. “What do you mean?”

  Nuala turned her head just enough for me to get a good whiff of her breath, all summer and promises. “I can’t play anything. I can only help others. It wouldn’t matter if I thought of the best song in the world—I couldn’t play it. ”

  “You physically can’t?”

  She turned her face back away from me. “I just can’t. Music doesn’t happen for me. ”

  Something stuck in my throat, uncomfortable. “Show me. ”

  She slid one hand off mine, pressed a key down with her finger. I watched the key depress—one time, two times, five times, ten times—but nothing happened. Just the small, muffled sound of the piano key being depressed. She took my hand and dragged it to the same key. Pressed my finger down, once. The piano rang out, a sullen bell that stopped as soon as she lifted my finger back up again.

  She didn’t say anything else. Did she have to? The memory of that single note was still singing in my head.

  Nuala whispered, “Just give me one song. I won’t take anything from you. ”

  I should’ve said no. If I’d known how badly it would hurt, later, I would’ve said no.


  Instead, I just said, “Promise. Your word. ”

  “My word. I’ll take nothing from you. ”

  I nodded. It occurred to me that she couldn’t see it, but she seemed to know, anyway, because she rested her fingers on mine and leaned her head back against me, her hair scented with clover. What was she waiting for? Me to play? I couldn’t play the damn piano.

  Nuala pointed to a key. “Start there. ”

  Awkward, her body between me and the piano and her whatever the hell it was between me and my brain, I pressed the key and recognized it as the first note of the song that had been occupying my brain since I woke up. I stumbled, clumsy, to the next note, hitting several wrong ones on the way—the piano was a foreign language that felt wrong in my mouth. Then the next one, guessing a little faster. The next one, only getting one wrong. The next one, right on the first try. And then I was playing the melody, and I joined in with my other hand, hesitantly picking out the bass line that sang in my head.

  It was clunky, amateurish, beautiful. And it was mine. It didn’t sound like a song I’d stolen from Nuala. I recognized a scrap of tune that I’d played with on and off over the years, an ascending bass line I’d admired on an Audioslave album, and a riff I’d toyed with on my guitar. It was mine, but intensified, focused, polished.

  I stopped playing and stared at the piano. I couldn’t say anything because I wanted it so badly. I wanted what she had to offer and it stung because I had to say no. I squeezed my eyes shut.

  “Say something,” Nuala said.

  I opened my eyes. “Shit. I told Sullivan I didn’t know how to play the piano. ”


  This golden song on my tongue, melting

  This golden tongue giving song, longing

  —from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter

  I didn’t really know what I was feeling. The song that James had just played swelled in my head, and it was so beautiful I felt drunk with it. I’d almost forgotten how good it felt to have my inspirations made flesh, even without taking any energy from James in return. Suddenly wearing my human skin exhausted me.

  “I’m leaving,” I told James, ducking out from under his arms and standing up.

  He was still staring at the keyboard, his shoulders stiff.

  “Did you hear what I said?” I said. “I’m leaving. ”

  James looked up, finally, and the hostility in his eyes surprised me for some reason. “Do me a favor,” he said. “And don’t come back. ”

  For a long moment, I looked at him, and I really thought about blinding him, to punish him. I knew it was within my power. I’d seen a faerie do it before; he’d spat in a man’s eyes when he noticed that the man was able to see him walking down the street. It had only taken a second. And James was looking right at me.

  But then I looked at James’ hazel eyes and imagined him staring out on the world with wide, unseeing pupils like the blinded man.

  And I couldn’t do it.

  I didn’t know why.

  So I just left, stumbling a little on my way out into the hall, going invisible before I closed the door behind me. Once out of the practice room, I was in such a hurry to get outside that I nearly ran into a woman coming into the hallway. I ducked against the wall and she turned her head, her pink-nailed fingers lifting like claws. I swear she was sniffing in my direction, which was the sort of bizarre behavior I’d come to expect from faeries, not humans.

  I was ready for this weird day to be over. I spun out of her reach and into the autumn evening, trying to forget James’ eyes looking at me and to pretend that it hadn’t hurt when he asked me not to come back.


  I had a love-hate relationship with the dorms. They were independence: the freedom to leave your crap on the floor and eat Oreos for breakfast three days in a row (which isn’t a good idea—you always end up with black chunks in your teeth during your first few classes). They were also camaraderie: seventy-five guys thrown into one building together meant you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a musician with balls.

  But they were also brutal, claustrophobic, exhausting. There was no space to get away, to be by yourself, to be who you were when no one was watching, to escape whoever the masses had pegged you to be.

  This afternoon, it was raining, which was the worst—no one in class, no one outside. The dorm was screaming with sound. Our room was full of people.

  “I miss home,” Eric said.

  “You live five miles from here. You’re not entitled to miss home,” I said. I was multitasking. Talking with Paul and Eric, reading Hamlet, and doing my geometry homework. Eric was non-tasking: lying on his face on the floor distracting us from homework. Teachers’ assistants lived on campus and did double duty as resident assistants, keeping students in line, but the idea of Eric as an authority figure was fairly hilarious; he wasn’t any more responsible than the rest of us.

  “There’s microwave macaroni at home,” Eric replied. “But if I go back for it, I’ll have to put gas in my car. ”

  “People like you deserve to starve. ” I turned to the next page in Hamlet. “Microwave macaroni is too good for sluggards like yourself. ” I missed my mom’s macaroni. She put about eight pounds of cheese in it and a pig’s worth of bacon on it. I knew it was probably an evil plan to clog my arteries at a young age, but I missed it anyway.

  “Does it say that in there?” Paul asked from his bed. He too was wrestling with Hamlet. “It sounds very Hamlet. You know, ‘you are not well, my lord, ay, and all that, you are naught but a sluggard. ’ ”

  Eric said, “Hamlet rocks. ”

  “Your mom rocks,” I told him. Outside our open door, I saw a bunch of guys run down the hall with swim trunks on, yelling. I didn’t even want to know.

  “Dude, I just want to know why they can’t just say what they mean,” Paul said. He read a passage out loud. “What. The. Hell. ” Then he added, feelingly, “The only part I get is this: ‘Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us. ’ Because that’s just how I feel when I have to see my sister-in-law. ”

  “That part’s not that bad,” I said. “At least you can tell what they mean is ‘Horatio says we’ve been smoking mushrooms, but he’ll change his mind when he too craps his pants after seeing the ghost. ’ It’s not like this ‘colleagued-with-the-dream-of-his-advantage’ stuff here. I mean, he just goes on, doesn’t he? Can you really blame Ophelia for killing herself after five acts of this? She just wanted the voic
es to shut up. ”

  Actually, I just wanted the voices to shut up. The swim-trunk guys were making laps up and down the hall, and on the floor above us someone was pounding their feet in time to inaudible music. Down the hall, some idiot was practicing his violin. Really high. Really catlike. My head was throbbing with it.

  Paul groaned. “Man, I hate this book. Play. Whatever. Why couldn’t Sullivan just assign The Grapes of Wrath or something else in plain English?”

  I shook my head and dropped my thick volume of Hamlet on the floor. There was a shout from the floor below, and a thump under my feet as someone threw something at their ceiling. “At least Hamlet is short. I’m going to go down to the lobby for a sec. Right back. ”

  I left Paul frowning at Hamlet and Eric frowning at the floor and went downstairs. The lobby was still noisy—some idiot who played piano worse than me was pounding on the old upright down there—so I pushed out the back door. The back of the dorm was covered with a high-ceilinged portico, held up with massive creamy columns. The rain was coming down hard, but not hard enough to blow water under the roof.

  But it was cold. I pulled my sleeves over my hands, balled the edges in my fingers to keep the chill from getting in, and spent a long moment staring at the hills behind the dorm. The rain had bleached the color from everything, filled the dips between the hills with mist, and brought the sky down to the ground. The landscape before me was old, unchanging, beautiful, and it hurt in a way that made me want to have my pipes in my hands.

  I wondered if Nuala was watching me. Close, invisible, dangerous. In the library, I’d looked online for a stronger ward against faeries than the iron, and found one that I’d written down on my hand, on the base of my pinky finger: thorn, ash, oak, red. This ward would have to stay just words until I figured out what the hell an ash tree looked like.

  I stepped away from the door and moved toward the end of the portico that had the least water on the bricks. Crap. Double crap. So much for being alone.

  A small, dark form crouched against the wall of the dorm, arms huddled around body, hood pulled up. I would’ve turned and gone back inside, but the way the hand was turned against the hidden face looked a lot like crying, and something about the shape of the body indicated femininity. Not something we saw a lot of here in Seward, the guy dorm.

  The girl didn’t look up as I approached, but I recognized the shoes as I got closer. Scuffed black Doc Martens. I crouched beside her and lifted the edge of her hood with one finger. Dee looked up at me and dropped her hand. There were no tears on her face, but they’d left evidence of themselves in her red eyes.

  “Psycho babe,” I said softly, “What are you doing here in this fearful country that is the men’s dorm?”

  Dee reached up to her eye again, as if to stop a tear that I couldn’t see. She rubbed it and held out her index finger to me. “Want an eyelash?”

  I looked at the lonely little eyelash that stuck to the end of her fingertip. “I read that you only have a finite number of eyelashes. If you pull them all out now, you won’t have any more. ”

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